From Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law (ABC/Clio: 2d ed. 2012).
By David B. Kopel
Author of three major books on the sociology of firearms, James D. Wright has played a major role in bringing serious techniques of social science to bear on the firearms controversy.
During the Ford administration, Attorney General Edward Levi called for banning handguns in cities which had crime rates above a certain level. Gun rights activist Neal Knox responded by filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Justice, asking what research the Department had which supported handgun bans. The Department had none. At about the same time, Philip Cook and Mark Moore submitted research grant proposals to the DOJ, suggesting that the main reason why more stringent gun control laws had not been enacted was that advocates had failed to make a serious scholarly case for them.
Like the Ford administration, the Carter administration supported gun control. Accordingly, President Carter's Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) offered research grants for teams of scholars to study the firearms issue. (LEAA was later abolished, and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) took over as administrator of most federal criminal justice research grants.)
The grants yielded several reports: Weapons Policies: A Survey of Police Department Practices Concerning Weapons and Related Issues, by Eleanor Weber-Burdin, Peter Rossi, James Wright, and Michelle Daly; Effects of Weapons Use on Felony Case Disposition: An Analysis of Evidence from the Los Angeles PROMIS System, by Rossi, Weber-Burdin and Huey-tsyh Chen; an Annotated Bibliography, by Wright, Chen, Joseph Pereira, Daly, and Rossi; and an Executive Summary, by Wright and Rossi. But the report that reshaped the American firearms debate was Weapons, Crime, and Violence in
Who were the "Wright and Rossi" who were to become such familiar names for people who cared about gun policy?
James D. Wright was a professor of
sociology at the
Wright, Rossi, and Daly produced their report for the National Institute of
Justice in 1982, they delivered a document quite different from the one they
had expected to write. Carefully reviewing all existing research to date, the
three scholars found no persuasive evidence that
The authors discussed the data showing that gun owners--rather then being a violent, aberrant group of nuts--were at least as psychologically stable and morally sound as the rest of the population. Polls claiming to show that a large majority of the population favored "more gun control" were critiqued as the product of biased questions, and of the fact that most people have no idea how strict gun laws already are.
As Wright, Rossi, and Daly frankly admitted, they had started out their research as gun control advocates, and had been forced to change their minds by their review of the evidence.
In 1981, the NIJ awarded Wright and Rossi (this time, without Daly) a new grant to investigate the gun habits of
Fifty-six percent of the prisoners said that a criminal would not attack a potential victim who was known to be armed. Seventy-four percent agreed with for a the statement that "One reason burglars avoid houses where people are at home is that they fear being shot during the crime." Thirty-nine percent of the felons had personally decided not to commit a crime because they thought the victim might have a gun, and 8% said the experience had occurred "many times." Criminals in states with higher civilian gun ownership rates worried the most about armed victims.
Notwithstanding popular assertions that criminals preferred small, inexpensive handguns (so-called "Saturday Night Specials"), the felony prisoners preferred larger, more powerful handguns--equal to the guns which they expected the police would have.
Although the criminals rarely bought guns in gun stores, the overwhelming majority stated that obtaining a gun after their release from prison would be a simple project, which might take a few hours to a few weeks.
The report for the NIJ was eventually published as the book Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms. Both Under the Gun and Armed and Considered Dangerous became a major element of the gun control debate. Scholars who were skeptical of gun control, such as Don Kates , worked hard to disseminate the Wright/Rossi (and Daly) research. Eventually, the Wright/Rossi/Daly material trickled down to many gun rights activists, as activists either bought the books themselves, or read about the books in articles by Kates and others. The Wright/Rossi/Daly research became a frequent subject of letters to the editor from gun rights advocates.
Wright moved to
Along with Tulane's Joseph Sheley,
Wright returned to the gun issue with a series of articles that culminated with
the 1995 publication of the book In the Line of Fire: Youths, Guns, and
Violence in Urban
Sheley and Wright found that so-called "assault weapons" were, despite popular imagery, not greatly important to juvenile gun crime. The more an individual engaged in delinquent behavior (e.g., selling drugs, participating in organized gangs), the greater the risk of gun injury. Of the inmates, seventy percent had been "scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured" by an armed victim at least once. But Wright and Sheley's broader point was the guns, drugs, and gangs were all merely symptoms. A Wright and Sheley article in Peace Review expressed their ultimate point more boldly than their book did:
Until we rectify the conditions that breed hostility, estrangement, futility and hopelessness, whatever else we do will come to little or nothing . . . Widespread joblessness and few opportunities for upward mobility are the heart of the problem. Stricter gun-control laws, more aggressive enforcement of existing laws, a crack-down on drug traffic, police task forces aimed at juvenile gangs. . .and other similar measures are inconsequential compared to the true need: the economic, social and moral resurrection of the inner city. Just how this might be accomplished and at what cost can be debated; the urgent need to do so cannot.
James D. Wright & Joseph Sheley, "Teenage Violence and the Underclass," Peace Review (Fall 1992), p. 34.
See also: Cook,
Philip; Gun Control Act of 1968;
For further information:
Joseph F. Sheley & James D. Wright,
In the Line of the Fire: Youth, Guns, and Violence in Urban
James D. Wright & Peter H. Rossi, Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms (Aldine de Gruyter, expanded edition, 1994)
James D. Wright,
Peter H. Rossi & Kathleen Daly
Under the Gun: Weapons, Crime, and Violence in
James D. Wright,
"Ten Essential Observations on Guns in
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